If I could change one thing about Italy–wait, who am I kidding? I love living in Italy, but given the chance I would change roughly 14,000 things about it. But for argument’s sake, let’s choose one thing—it would be the ethnic food situation. Italy doesn’t do ethnic food. It doesn’t even do inter-regional food that well. If I go to my vegetable guy at the outdoor market and ask for black cabbage, I get a look and a, “Black cabbage?!? I don’t sell that. That’s what they use to make ribollita in Tuscany!” as if Tuscany were a remote province in southern China and not the bordering region roughly a 20 minute drive away. In Umbria, you eat Umbrian food. Just like in Puglia you eat Puglian food and in Liguria you eat Ligurian food. And if you want anything outside of those gastro-geographical borders, you need to book a flight.
Part of me is happy about that. I believe very strongly in eating mindfully (it’s about at new age-y as I get). Our food doesn’t inhabit a cultural and historical vacuum; our food is part of a larger context of land and people, the ebb and flow of economies and conquering armies, and often there’s a side helping of religious traditions on our plates, as well. Eating locally in a country like Italy—which has a rich gastronomic history and culture currently under attack by the invasion of fast food and imported counterfeits—is both a pleasure and a civic duty.
Of all the foods that weave a seamless tapestry between culture, history, and land, wine is the most illustrative. To really get a sense of the importance of millenia of viticulture and vinification on the landscape, art and literature, and cuisine of Umbria, Italy, and the entire Mediterranean basin, a visit to Torgiano’s excellent Wine Museum is de rigueur.
Though founded in the mid-1970s, careful upkeep and curation have made this far from a dusty, arid storehouse of wine related bric-à-brac, but more a compelling walk through the history of wine in all its thousand facets: gastronomic, economic, social, ceremonial, and medicinal. The museum, housed in the the 17th-century Palazzo Graziani-Baglioni six kilometers from Perugia, displays a vast array of items from archeological artefacts, artworks, and ethnographic collections—all aimed at illustrating the history and civilization of wine from its import from the Middle East, through the Etruscan and Roman cultures, until the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps the most charming section of the museum is the vaulted stone and brick basement holding the antique wine cellar, with its collection of reconstructed antique grape presses, immense vats, and other wine-making equipment, many of which still used in Umbrian cantinas until just a few decades ago. One can just picture a winsome Sofia Loren-esque country maid, with her skirt hitched up and a come-hither look on her face, as she stomped through grape must and captured the heart of a roomful of farmboys.
I had expected an academic vibe to this museum, but instead found it captured the light-hearted, human side of wine–and drinking. From the collection of “lover’s cups”—used to woo one with wine—to the animal-shaped flasks, to the pieces dedicated to the ubiquitous Dionysian Myth, to the hip contemporary ceramic and graphics sections, at the Wine Museum I was reminded of how such a humble chemical reaction (we’re just talking about fermented grape juice, after all) can produce something so central to an entire civilization’s history and culture.
That said…um, I’m really craving a samosa right now.
One of my favorite wineries is right down the road: Terre Margaritelli. Stop in for a tasting!
The late afternoon view from the Convento del Sacro Spreco
The thing about magic is that when you go looking for it, it doesn’t show. And then, when you’ve let your guard down, it sneaks up on you in the most unexpected places.
I went to Narni expecting magic. Perhaps even needing it a little bit. I had long heard the story of Narni being the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ mythical, magical land of Narnia—though, admittedly, the author never visited this dramatically positioned hill town himself. Overlooking the Nera River to the north (where the remains of the monumental Roman Ponte d’Augusto, so picturesque that a rendering of it by impressionist Corot now hangs in the Louvre, still make passersby draw breath) and the craggy peaks of the Valnerina to the west, Narni held the promise of bringing to life the enchantment and adventure that I so loved from Lewis’ epic, and that I had recently rediscovered in reading the novels to my sons.
The view of the Nera River valley, ca 1826.
Narni was lovely. It was. It has a fine historic center, a fetching pinacoteca with a Ghirlandaio and a Gozzoli, either of which worth the ticket price, and Narni Sotteranea, perhaps one of the most remarkable underground tours in Umbria. Plus, it had lots of lion imagery and a homegrown Lucy (the mummified saintly remains creepily displayed in the Duomo) and lush, striking countryside very much reminiscent of Lewis’ novels. But for some reason, it just didn’t click.
Perhaps part of that is the fault of Narni Scalo, a disheartening post-war industrial sprawl, complete with electro-carbon plant, which has gradually filled the valley below Narni itself (take a gander at Corot’s 1826 Le pont de Narni for an idea of paradise lost) and is the first sight to meet visitors. Perhaps part of that is the fault of my own inflated expectations for this unassuming, though attractive, town. Regardless, I left somewhat deflated and at a bit of a loss.
The cloister of the Franciscan convent in the fading light.
And then, magic. Instead of turning north towards home, I headed south on a whim in search of the Convento del Sacro Speco, a Franciscan site about 20 kilometers outside of Narni. I’m not sure why…I’m generally more of an art and architecture (with heavy doses of food and wine) kind of traveller, not a religion and spirituality sort of traveller, but this secluded sanctuary—founded in 1213 by Saint Francis but rebuilt in the 1400s—somehow compelled me, along with the legend of an ailing Francis once being soothed by an angel playing violin music here. The Saint often used a nearby cave to pray in solitude, and many of the friars who live here now do so according to the saint’s First Rule of silence and contemplation.
Parts of the sanctuary are closed to the public.
Not the friar–strongly resembling Disney’s badgeresque Tuck–who met me at the gate, and, taking my face in both hands, looked me kindly in the eyes and asked, “Daughter, why are you here? What are you looking for?” Which gave me pause, because I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself. I stammered something inane about wanting to take a walk around the grounds, and he stepped back with a smile, easing my discomfort with a welcoming, “Stay as long as you like. This is your home.”
I didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. It was late afternoon and the sun was already low over the forested hills, but I slowly wandered through the miniature stone convent, with its tiny chapel and creche-like cloister. I paused for awhile in the inner courtyard to drink in the stunning view, from the village of Calvi perched on the mountains to the south, across the plain with its handkerchief-sized fields, woods, and stone farmhouses, to Narni to the north (and rued the fact that my camera doesn’t have a panoramic setting).
Climbing the path through the oak forest to the oratory at the top of the hill, the silence was broken only by songbirds and the sound of my own footsteps through the dry leaves. Through the glass doors of the oratory, the simple, rough chapel inside was evocative of the spirit of the Saint and so much more authentic than many of the more visited Franciscan sites in Umbria. I sat for a few minutes at the mouth of Francis’ cave—now sheltering an altar used for outdoor celebrations—and felt myself meld into the woods around, the darkening sky, the crisp evening air, the softly rustling leaves. My reverie was broken by the sound of the bells from the sanctuary below, calling visitors to Mass and me back to reality. As others headed towards the chapel, I made for the gate knowing that my spirit had been filled already and I had found, in this casual side-trip, what I had been seeking. Just a little bit of magic.
To visit the convent, set your navigator on the village of S. Urbano and follow the signs.
Opening hours are 9:30 – 20:00
Masses are Mon-Sat 11:00 ; Sunday and holidays 11:00 and 18:00
Never was a room painted happier than this Sol Lewitt work. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
Spoleto is a mecca for history buffs, the city a mash-up of architectural epochs from the Umbrii through the middle-ages. Strolling through town, you are as likely to have your eye caught by the austere Roman Arch of Drusus as the whimsical 17th century Mascherone Fountain.
But you know what? History, schmistory. Sometimes I get a hankering to see what’s coming next, not what came before, and Spoleto has a unique window into the future, as well. The excellent Palazzo Collicola Arti Visive contemporary art museum, completely renovated in 2010 (and, luckily, with a brand-new website, as the previous version was both graphically stunning and completely impenetrabile), is one of several collections of contemporary art in otherwise artistically stodgy Umbria, and perhaps its best.
Go on, blow on these Calders. You know you want to. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
The permanent collection (Museo Carandente) on the ground floor houses fifteen rooms of modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, heavy on the Calder (I blew on a couple of mobile sculptures to see them spin and no alarms went off, so go right ahead. You didn’t hear it from me, though.), including scale models and period photographs of his monumental Teodolapio sculpture from 1962, which sits in front of the Spoleto train station, and the Sol Lewitt (I challenge you to stand in the Rainbow Room and not get a silly grin on your face. Try it.).
Unfortunately, the collection is light on explanatory notes; there are few posted in the individual gallery rooms and the map upon entering is a simple postcard with a floor plan. They would be doing themselves a service to invest in more complete descriptions (posted, printed, and in audioguides) so visitors would have a better historical and cultural context for the works. In the meantime, I can just talk at you like a normal person and tell you that it’s a lovely collection—the perfect size for a visit that doesn’t lead to art overdose and happily juxtaposed with the stately Renaissance palazzo with its original cotto floors and painted vaulted ceilings.
Leoncillo's massive ceramics are lovely and unsettling (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
I was especially charmed by Calder’s lighthearted tiny wire people twisted from champagne cork cages (Yes, I can hear you saying, “But I coulda done that!” Well, chump, you didn’t. Which is why you are now paying €6 to see those who did.) and the beautifully disturbing (or disturbingly beautiful) Leoncilla ceramic works.
The ornate piano nobile upstairs is used to house temporary exhibition–primarily through the summer months–for a real look into the future of art. And don’t miss the works in the courtyard, which are easy to overlook—though the crazy graffiti-art-on-existential-high Santiago Morilla mural is an eye-catcher.
Whoa. This Santiago Morilla will stop you in your tracks. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)
From this maelstrom of color and forms, it’s a bit soothing to step back into the historic stone streets of Spoleto and drink in its past. But a quick, bubbly sip of the future can be had in this stately city, as well. So, drink up.
Looking for more contemporary art in Umbria? Here are some suggestions from Arttrav: Contemporary Art in Umbria
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
Cities–like people–have a face they show the world and a hidden, intimate side, where the scars of time and trials are revealed to those who have the patience and sensitivity to look past the surface and discover all the fascinating complexity beneath.
In Orvieto, this metaphor comes to life in a poignantly literal way. This stately town—proud of its outstanding Cathedral, crisp Orvieto Classico wine, and general cosmopolitan vibe—dominates the surrounding undulating countryside from atop the dramatic volcanic stone outcropping it has inhabited on and off since the time of the Etruscans. But to really get a feel for Orvieto and its millenia-long history, more than wander its streets and piazze you need to head underground to visit its caves—more than 1,200 of which honeycomb the cliff below the historic center.
Almost all of these man-made underground caverns and passageways are private property and not open to the public, but the Orvieto Underground tour takes small groups to visit the two which are owned by the city. I had been hearing about this subterranean tour for years and had been curious to check it out, being especially partial to exploring the quirky side of Umbria and unearthing offbeat museums and tours like these. And Orvieto Underground didn’t disappoint.
One of the largest caverns has been used over the centuries as an olive oil mill.
During the hour-long visit, we saw the very first underground tunnelings by the Etruscans in search of water roughly seven centuries before Christ. The precisely cut rectangular wells (with incorporated hand and foot-holds for climbing in and out) and peaked cavern ceilings resembling rooftops (probably remnants of pagan temples) are testimony to the engineering skill and aesthetic sensibility of this still somewhat mysterious people.
After defeating the Etruscans, the Romans sacked the town and Velzna—as the Etruscans called their city–was abandoned until the early middle ages, when the next signs of human life appear underground, as well. As Orvieto began to rebuild at the strategic top of the cliff, its citizens once again found themselved digging out the soft rock beneath their homes in search of water, temperature-controlled storage (the caves maintain an average 12-13° C), and—most picturesquely—pigeon cotes. The walls of these square rooms are pocked by orderly, square pigeon holes and have a small window for the birds to fly in and out during the day. Thus began a tradition of roast pigeon in Orvieto, which you will still find on most menus today.
The pigeons raised in these cotes kept Orvieto fed for centuries.
In the late middle-ages, as the city began to stabilize and prosper, these underground caverns were expanded and converted to also house workshops for the local ceramic production (cooling cisterns and the remains of a kiln can still be found) and quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement (which continued into the early 20th century). One of the biggest caverns was most recently used as an olive oil press, and the massive millstones and presses still on view make it easy to imagine the room crowded with pickers and workers pressing out one of Umbria’s most prized product each fall.
The final cavern of the tour was used as a WWII bomb shelter.
The final cavern of the tour brings visitors to modern Italy, as the bare room ringed with a low bench hewed from the stone was used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Orvieto proper was declared an Open City, thus spared from the most destructive raids, but the valley below was crisscrossed with rail- and road-ways and often the target of both the Allies and retreating Germans. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to sit for hours in the blackness of a cave meters below the ground, hearing the muffled sounds of explosions and the quiet rattle of tiny stones dislodging from the ceiling and walls…hoping desperately that the rock would hold.
Though the digging of further tunnels under modern Orvieto has been banned for years, almost all the palazzi in the center of town still use their private, undergound caverns–in most cases as a cantina—left for them by centuries—if not millenia—of previous inhabitants. Walking through Orvieto now, I know that the facades lining the streets are just the town’s game face…the true soul of the town lies in its secret labyrinth below.
A view over the surrounding countryside from the Orvieto Underground caves.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.
Museum of Olive Oil Culture in Trevi. Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Remember when you’d just have a cup of coffee? You didn’t bother yourself with its country of origin and how many times it had been roasted. You just sloshed it boiling hot from the Mr. Coffee and sucked it down along with all the chemicals leaching out of the styrofoam cup it was in.
Remember when you’d just eat a tomato? You didn’t ask yourself about its carbon footprint or whether it was heirloom or hothouse. You just sliced it onto your iceberg lettuce, drowned the whole cabash in Thousand Island, and got on with it.
Remember when you’d just drink some wine? You didn’t hold forth on varietals and terroirs and Super-thises and thats. You just unscrewed that cap on the old Lancer’s bottle and poured with gravitas into two chunky cut-glass goblets and felt very sophisticated.
Before I start sounding like Andy Rooney, let me just be clear that I hold no particular nostalgia for those times. I am a foodie (though I lean less towards murmuring about tannins and undertones over a mellow glass of Sagrantino and more towards a loud, “Damn, that’s crazy good! Pass that bottle back over here a minute.”) and this growing culture of caring about where our food comes from and what it tastes like is just fine with me. I do, however, watch with amusement as wave after wave of ingredients that were once somewhat quotidien show up on the fickle foodie radar to get exalted, examined, and ultimately abandoned for the Next Big Thing by hungry hipsters.
Right now it’s all about olive oil, folks. Friends whom I know for a fact were dressing their salads with generic supermarket corn oil just minutes ago are suddenly armchair experts on cold-pressing and mono-cultures and phytonutrients. Olive oil tastings andgastronomic tours to the mills are all the rage, and travellers seem to be packing less wine and more olive oil in their suitcases for the trip home.
Traditional olive oil dispenser, Trevi, Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Anyone who loves Umbria as I do couldn’t be anything but thrilled at this trend; olive cultivation and oil production is one of the most fundamental threads running through the historic and economic fabric of this region. And no better place to understand just how important this 2,000 year old culture is than the delightful hilltop town of Trevi.
Museum of Olive Oil Culture
Trevi is a charmer of a village even for wanderers who have no particular interest in olive oil…but for those who do, you’ve hit paydirt. Your first stop should be the small but excellent Museum of Olive Oil Culture in the museum complex of San Francesco (if you stop first at the tourist info office in the main Piazza Mazzini, you can pick up a map and free audio guide of the town). An ecclectic mix of archival photographs, historic farm and mill implements, horticultural explanations–and heart-warmingly old-timey displays like scale models of the town and surrounding hillsides and a life-size diorama of an 18th century mill and kitchen, just the fact that an entire museum dedicated to the culture and history of olive oil exists (and a well-curated one, at that) is testimony to how fundamental this fruit is to the entire region. They offer an audio-guide in English (included in the price of your ticket) which is a must to really enjoy the displays.
Olives from Umbria ready for pressing by olive oil tours www.discoveringumbria.it
Olive Oil Mills
From here the next logical step is to visit an olive oil mill itself and taste what is often referred to as this region’s “liquid gold”. The impressively organized Olive Oil Road lists mills open to the public in each of the five subzones in Umbria; Trevi is included in the Assisi-Spoleto area and I used the listings to visit two local mills. At the first I was greeted by Central Casting’s “Italian Grandmother”, complete with thick specs, flowered housecoat, and carpet slippers…who was mortified to find a visitor on the day they were cleaning out the mill and apologized profusely that I had caught them with things in disorder. She did ask me in for tea and cookies, but I pressed on to the nearby Frantoio Gaudenzi.
As soon as I stepped into their pretty new mill and shop (they’ve been producing oil for 50 years, but recently built a new press along the Via Flaminia in the valley below Trevi), the pungent odor of freshly pressed oil hit me in a wave–setting off the Pavlov slobber common in any olive-oil enthusiast. Stefano, grandson of the founder, showed me the shining modern presses working the heaping mounds of freshly harvested olives (they are pressed within hours of picking) into the bright green, cloudy-thick new oil filling the vats. The Gaudenzis, like many mills, make a variety of olive oils: their basic oil, their higher-end regionally specific oil, an organic variety, and—my favorite—“Fifth Moon”, an oil made exclusively from olives harvested within the fifth moon of the flowering (meaning the month of October). Dribbled over a piece of local, unsalted bread, the fruity smell and flavour of this intriguing oil made me lick my foodie chops.
Freshly pressed olive oil from Umbria by olive oil tours www.discoveringumbria.it
I came away from my visit to Trevi with a feeling of having somehow connected the past to the present to the future. The Roman terracotta urns in the olive museum, the mills churning out oil under the bright October sky, the third generation producer passionately exploring new blends and techniques. Over two thousand years of history condensed into the thin, bright stream of oil soaking my bread and warming my heart.
There are lots of olive oil soaked events in Umbria in the fall and winter–for a complete list, check the program at Frantoi Aperti. Also, I highly recommend the olive oil food tours offered by Dicovering Umbria!
I brake for Renaissance portals. (Copyright Marzia Keller)
There was a family who lived down the block from me when I was growing up that had a passel of kids. I don’t recall how many, but definitely in the low double-digits. We would play together, and they were always just slightly unkempt…mismatched socks, hair needing a trim, ratty toys. The predictable signs of harried parents short on time and money. That said, I also remember how loved those kids were. Despite there being so many of them, I never got the sense that they were any less treasured than those of us with just a sibling or two who always had clean pants and extra milk money in our pockets.
This is kind of how it is with art in Italy. There’s just so damn much of it here that there aren’t the time and resources to take painstaking care of it all. That said, you do get a sense that Italy loves its treasures—despite much-discussed cases of mismanagement and graft—no less than any other country, even if it presents them with much less pomp and circumstance.
The sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime holds a surprise inside…
The lovely sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime right outside of the center of Trevi is a perfect example of this. I stopped by mostly by chance, drawn to the pretty 15<sup>th</sup> century facade and elaborately carved Renaissance portal (by Giovanni di Giampietro di Venezia, I later learned) looming over the winding road which leads from the valley below Trevi up through the sprawling olive groves which surround it.
I stepped into the silent church, its lone visitor, and quickly skimmed the historical information near the door, recounting how the sanctuary had been constructed on the spot where, in 1485, an image of the Virgin (now forming the altarpiece) miraculously shed tears.
A detail from the elaborate stonework decorating the facade.
As I circled the church to take a look at the chapels and artwork, my echoing footsteps suddenly stopped in front of a large Adoration of the Magi fresco. Wait one darn minute. Could that really be? Right here, in this empty church in the middle of an olive grove with not even a caretaker keeping a watchful eye?!?
No way! Yes way.
Yep, it was a magnificent Perugino, painted in 1521 and unmistakeable in its fairytale colors, Umbrian landscape background, and—most movingly—breathtakingly fine portraits. I stood for a minute in silent admiration until I was startled by the door of the church banging shut behind me. A slight woman in her eighties, weighed down by a number of shopping bags and a lethal-looking black handbag quickly shuffled past me, set down her load, and kneeled in front of the Perugino.
I backed quietly away, leaving this priceless treasure to those who love it best.
I love this silly picture of the Virgin’s foot. It’s rendered so haphazardly one just has to wonder if it was quitting time.
Just another day in the office for Francesco Rossi, sheep and goat herder and cheesemaker (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
I find it surprising—and somewhat heartening—that in this age where everyone seems to aspire to some sort of white-collar service sector desk job (those, of course, who don’t aspire to starring on a cable reality show), there are still people who make a conscious choice to get their hands (and boots) dirty.
Follow this sign (and the bleating of hundreds of sheep) to the good cheese. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
Enter Rita Rossi and her brother Francesco from tiny Colforcella outside of Cascia, who found themselves the unexpected owners of three orphan lambs about ten years back. As they couldn’t keep up with the rest of the herd, a passing shepherd left them in their care along with cursory instructions as to how to raise them. Rita quickly found her passion, and involved Francesco in expanding their herd and adding goats. From their hilltop farm, they now raise about 150 sheep and half as many goats…taking them from their warm shed each morning to graze in the surrounding sloping fields of the Valnerina.
Try making small talk around the water cooler with this guy every day. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
From books and neighbors, the Rossis taught themselves the art of cheesemaking, quickly turning out products of such fine quality that they count some of the best restaurants in Umbria among their clients. Demand is so high for their tangy and pungent wheels that they no longer sell aged cheese, as they can’t keep them around long enough to properly age them. They offer a variety of soft, fresh goat cheese and sheep cheese ranging from two days to a month old…some of which are flavored with the saffron threads they harvest from their field of crocuses (croci?).
Rita Rossi separates out saffron threads from her crocus field. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
My visit to the Rossi farm, accompanied by a chef friend who had sung me their praises, only underlined the singularity of these brother-and-sister team’s choice of work: theirs is no showcase estate, but a real working farm complete with lots of hounds and lots of mud. That said, the bleating sheep coming up the lane against the background of the autumn colored woods, the field of tiny violet crocuses with their bright orange stigmas, and the serene smile lighting up Rita’s face as she shyly talks about her life are undeniably bucolic.
The view from your office ain’t that bad, if you don’t mind a little mud on your boots.
Our visit ended with a quick sampling of some of their cheeses: a strong soft goat caprino, a spreadable fresh sheep, and a semi-aged (about a month) casciotta (true to her word, the aging room was virtually empty…these wheels go like hotcakes). They were straightforward and left a clean taste in your mouth, with none of the insipid flavors or chemical aftertaste that comes with so many commercial cheeses made from milk from larger farms.
Made in the morning, by afternoon these cheeses are sold out. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
Before slicing into a wheel of casciotta, Rita rinses the rind of brine and mold (the good kind of mold).
Like the Rossi family, these cheeses had nothing fancy about them; simple, honest, and matter-of-factly excellent. Here’s to going back to the land, and from that land making something heavenly.
To taste some of these cheeses yourself, contact Rita through their website to arrange a visit or ask where their products are sold locally. You won’t be disappointed!
A huge thanks to chef Jennifer McIlvaine of Life…Italian Style for introducing me to the Rossi farm and snapping these wonderful pictures.
The rock star popularity of newly-minted Pope Francis (in March of 2013) has led to a surge in interest in his namesakes’ life and an explosion in the number of visitors to Franciscan sites in Assisi–primarily the Basilica of Saint Francis–and across Umbria.
Though I love the Basilica for its sheer artistic and architectural heft, there are a number of sites scattered around Umbria where Francis lived and prayed that have the quieter, more contemplative vibe that marked the saint’s approach to spirituality and nature.
Whether you are drawn to the historical or the spiritual aspects of Francis’ life, there are a number of Franciscan sites which are both fascinating and poignant monuments to this Umbrian saint’s life and work. Take a look at my two articles below for an overview of Assisi’s Basilica and a Franciscan itinerary across Umbria. Pax et bonum.
I’ll admit it. I tend to wax lyrical about the Valnerina. The dramatic valley–where the crystalline Nera river runs under steep rocky slopes, upon which tiny creche-like stone villages perch precariously–lends itself to waxing. The scenery in this largely unsung regional park is wild and rugged, stunningly beautiful yet foreboding. The weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, and the isolated villages and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that millenia ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable craggy peaks held out against conversion to Christianity long after the rest of the region.
A spring storm in the Valnerina near Meggiano, Umbria, Italy
I was waxing thus to an Umbrian friend awhile ago—a fellow passionate aficionado of the Valnerina–and telling him how I love the juxtaposition of the bucolic scenery with an unsettling underlying darkness (a David Lynch-esque feel, if you will), and he nodded knowingly and said, “And, of course, there’s that business about the dragon.” I nearly spit out my drink. What?!? What dragon?
It turns out–as so often happens–I am practically the last person in Umbria to find out about the dragon. Everyone knows the story of Mauro and his son Felice, two Syrian pilgrims who arrived in the Naarte region (from the ancient Nare or Naarco River, from which the modern Nera derives) roughly six centuries after Christ’s death to proselytize to the recalcitrant locals. As fate would have it, they were having a bit of trouble with a nearby dragon and, in what must have seemed like a serendipitous means of killing two birds with one stone, called on Mauro to prove his faith by taking care of business. No one knew precisely where the beast lived (his toxic breath kept them from getting too close), so Mauro set off at dawn with a reed walking stick and mason’s hammer to search the monster out. When he reached the general area where the locals had indicated the dragon might be found, the holy man stuck his stick in the ground for safe-keeping while he set about building a stone hut for shelter. The stick immediately sent out roots and shoots, and Mauro took it as a sign that God was covering his back in this dragon thing. He returned to his masonry work and after a short time caught the unmistakeable sulfuric odor of dragon-breath…if you’ve ever woken beside someone who dined on aglio, olio, peperoncino the night before, you know what I’m talking about.
San Mauro (and/or San Felice) slays the dragon from the facade of the church of San Felice di Narco
Though he feared his end was near, Mauro took his mason’s hammer and somehow managed to skirt the flames, avoid the sulfur, and overcome the height difference (accounts speak of a good 27 meters of dragon) to bonk the monster on the head. While the unconscious beast lay motionless on the ground, Mauro used his hammer to detach large pieces of rock from the cliff above, which continued falling on the dragon until it died (apparently of blood loss, as the river ran with dragon’s blood for three days and three nights). This begs the question as to why Mauro didn’t simply finish the job with the hammer rather than go to all the trouble to detach stones from the cliffside, but the ways of saints and screenwriters of horror movies are a mystery to mere mortals. Regardless, the locals needed no further proof of Mauro’s holiness and his God’s bad ass-edness, so they promptly converted. Mauro and Felice lived out their lives in prayer and service (Felice died in 535 AD and Mauro in 555 AD) in the Valnerina.
The lovely Romanesque San Felice di Narco
Some of the details of the story remain unclear. There may or may not have been an angel involved. The dragon may have actually been slain (dragons never seem to be killed, only slain) by Felice. There is a nurse who pops up now and then and seems to have died of fever with Felice. But the legend holds, and the area still bears testimony of it on the facade of the lovely Romansque Church of San Felice di Narco near Castel San Felice. If you look carefully at the freize under the intricately carved rose window, you will see a detail of depicting the slaying of the dragon (not to scale, please note) and inside the crypt the sarcophagus of the Saints Mauro and Felice. The nearby town of Sant’Anatolia and Church of Sant’Anatolia also pay homage to the two saints by adopting their surname.
Sant'Anatolia di Narco in the Valnerina
I was talking about this dragon story to another local friend in that cynical, sardonic tone that we hipsters use when discussing Self Help Gurus, the Easter Bunny, and Compassionate Conservativism, when he said, “Yes, and there’s that dragon bone in Città di Castello, of course.” More drink spitting ensued.
I discovered that the Valnerina wasn’t the only area in Umbria known for harboring fire-breathing winged reptiles. In the pretty upper Tiber Valley, a rolling countryside in the north of the region bordering on Tuscany, yet another dragon was slain (see?) by a travelling Christian missionary, Crescenziano (a Roman patrician known as Crescentino in Latin texts). Having given up his worldly goods to the poor, Crescenziano arrived in the area on horseback and was immediately put to task by the local pagans in dispatching their troublesome dragon. He killed the beast, converted the inhabitants, and was promptly martyred by the Romans for his trouble.
The iconography of San Crescenziano almost always depicts him on horseback in the act of killing the dragon.
Traces of this legend appear in a small bass-relief in the tiny country church of Pieve de’ Saddi, near Pietralunga (built on the spot where Crescenziano was martyred), and the coat of arms of Urbino’s cathedral—both of which depict Crescenziano on horseback impaling the dragon with a long spear. More convincing than this, however, is the 2.6 meter dragon rib bone, long conserved in the church of Pieve de’ Saddi until being moved to the cathedral in Città di Castello, where it is still stored, and a second rib bone, measuring 2.2 meters, kept in another tiny country church near Pieve de’ Saddi, San Pietro di Carpini. Scientists, skeptics, and spoilsports speak of the vast expanse of water which covered the area during the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (That’s roughly 23-5 million years ago. I googled it.) which was home to vast numbers of water and land animals, some quite large, of which numerous remains have been found by paleontologists over the years.
The church at Pieve de' Saddi marking the spot where San Crescenziano was martyred.
Academics, historians, and spoilsports also speak of the symbolism and allegory attached to the role of the dragon in myths. Both Umbrian legends originate from areas where there is a waterway—once interspersed with standing pools of fetid water harboring disease– and the work of draining and reclaiming the land for agriculture and ridding the area of disease may be symbolized by the slaying of a toxic, deadly monster. Man’s triumph over the wildness of nature, so to speak. The dragon was also historically used to symbolize paganism, and the Christian slaying the beast protrays this innovative religion’s advance.
Leonardo da Vinci's famous rendering of a dragon battling a lion.
Whale bones. Malaria. Swamp reclamation. Religious wars. Sure, it all fits, but what fun is that? I’ll take the fairy tale version, and continue to wax lyrical about the Valnerina (and all of Umbria) and her dragon.
This is the fifth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some fruit rollups, and join in on the conversation.
My favorite season has always been autumn, because I am a nerd. And the favorite season of nerds the world over is fall, because it marks the end of the nerd’s least favorite season: summer.
Summer is the season of endless, aimless frolicking, frolicking usually involving sports and bikinis, (or–most often–sports in bikinis). Summer is the season of the beach read, the blockbuster movie, the pop anthem. It is the season made for drinking the hottest drink and driving the hottest car and hanging with the hottest crowd. It is, in short, the season which celebrates everything the nerd is not very good at.
Fall—fall, my friends—is the season when order and routine return. It is the season when schools (or–for the older nerd–night courses) begin, the season of baggy sweaters and long walks in the arboretum (nerds like their nature tagged in Latin). Fall is the season of the Nobel prize for literature, the art-house film festival, the symphonic season opener. It is a season made for quiet, contemplative, indoor pursuits during which one is fully clothed and speaking in complete, grammatically correct sentences. It is, in short, the season during which the nerd positively shines.
And one of the nerd’s favorite activities during those rainy, Sunday afternoons in late fall is visiting museums. I love museums. Love them. I grew up in Chicago, which is a city saturated with sprawling, monumental museums. I cut my teeth at the Museum of Science and Industry, with its coal mine and walk-through heart and giant model train, and the Field Museum, with its towering dinosaur skeletons filling the main hall and life-size dusty paleolithic dioramas. (I love the Field Museum so much I actually toyed with the idea of holding my wedding reception there. Alas, nerds are poor. Geeks are the rich ones. They understand computer programming.)
Umbria, of course, can’t hold a candle to Chicago’s museums size-wise; the average Windy City museum covers more square acres than most Umbrian towns. That said, a number of bite-sized local museums have popped up in this region over the past few years that are excellently curated, accessible to English speakers, and well worth the hour or so it will take to visit their singular collections…even for you cool summer people out there.
Casa Museo di Palazzo Sorbello (Perugia)
There is something about human nature that draws us to the past. We trawl antique stores, hike the Mayan ruins, pore over archives searching out familiar surnames. We are constantly peering through windows into history, hoping to find some connection between our brief years on earth and the millenia that have come before.
This is especially true about the home-cum-museum. Who doesn’t love to wander through these domestic archaeological sites and learn about the quotidian routines of their occupants, so similar—or, at times, so incredibly removed—from our own?
When I visited the recently opened (and winningly named) Palazzo Sorbello “House Museum” in Perugia, I was fully expecting to be charmed. I envisioned richly furnished rooms (it is a noble family’s Palazzo, after all) arranged in artful domestic tableaux, mannequins posed in period garb, dark corners, a slight musty odor, and lots of dust. I envisioned, in short, the typical small, private, off-the-beaten-track museum.
I was not expecting to be wowed. But I was, and completely enthralled during my two hour tour (the standard visit lasts about half an hour, but I got to talking with their marketing director, Enrico Speranza, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the Sorbello family and their Palazzo and before we knew it….). If a visit to the Palazzo Sorbello is a window into the past, the view from here is one of a family with a long history–uniquely interwoven with that of Italy from the Middle Ages to the 20th century–and with an enduring passion for art and culture.
We began in the extensive library, includes a rare original Encyclopedie Française from the mid-1700s. From there we spent the better part of the morning viewing their carefully curated selection of landscape paintings and portraits, breathtaking European and Chinese porcelain, a priceless handblown Murano chandelier, and various objects d’epoque.
Perhaps most fascinating was the collection of intricate embroidery produced at the beginning of the 20th century by the Embroidery School founded by the American wife of one of the noble family’s descendants. This enterprising Dame, Romeyne Robert, left her mark on the local economy by enrolling rural Umbrian women in the school, teaching them this disappearing craft, and giving them their first taste of economic independence.
More than a simple time-capsule, Palazzo Sorbello is a living lesson in Italy’s social and economic history and one of the most fascinating museums in Umbria.
Museo della Memoria (Assisi)
Via San Francesco, 12
Phone: 075 8197021
Hours: Nov-Feb: 10:30–1:00/2:00–5:00 March, April, May/Sept, Oct: 10:00–1:00/2:30–6:00; June-Aug 10:00–1:00/1:30–7:00
Museo della Memoria
It’s easy to forget, in this religiously homogeneous land where politics, education, holidays, foods, given names, and kitschy tchotkes all seem to revolve around the Catholic church (the fact that I can use a yiddish phrase to describe things like holy water key chains and friar salt and pepper shakers gives me no end of etymological joy), that there are, indeed, other religious communities in Italy.
Jews in Italy have have had a tough time of it for the past two millenia, and the tiny remaining community of 45,000 which still live in the Bel Paese would have been even smaller had it not been for the work of a network of citizens—lay and ordained, private and official—who secretly collaborated under the direction of Catholic Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini and priests Father Rufino Niccacci and Don Aldo Brunacci to harbor and ultimately save more than 300 Jews (most from northern Italy) and other war refugees in the early 1940s.
I, like most local residents, had heard bits and pieces of this story through word of mouth and buzz created with the publication of The Assisi Underground, a 1978 novel built around the true story of this clandestine network. That said, for years the only remaining tangible evidence was the vintage printing press, still bolted to the floor of the typographer workshop-turned-souvenir shop in Piazza Santa Chiara, which had been used by the Brizi family to secretly print false identity cards and other documents, making it possible for Jews both in Assisi and across Italy avoid deportation and imprisonment.
When the building was sold in 2009, the new owners asked the press be removed, which spurred a grassroots movement by locals to create some sort of official display rather than let the last vestige of the Underground be packed away in storage. After a few calls to action in the local paper, I hadn’t heard much else, so figured the momentum had died away and the living memory along with it.
Luckily, I was wrong. Through private and public donations, the Museo della Memoria (Memory Museum) opened in the spring of 2011, and it is startlingly excellent. The four halls are packed with excellently displayed (and translated) letters, documents, photographs, and historical artifacts (many of which revolve around the Brizi’s typography workshop), an in-depth biography of the main characters in the story (including the German Colonel Valentin Müller, Commandant of the city and Catholic, who showed humanity in an inhumane situation), and a video loop of interviews with some of the surviving activists and refugees.
Moving, compelling, and perfectly curated, this jewel of a museum merits a visit. A final note: No Assisan betrayed the Underground and no refugee passing through was captured during its activity. So, the Jews have a debt to the city. And yet…and yet. It was the letter forged by the hand of one of these refugees, fluent in German, purportedly from Kesselring declaring Assisi an open city, which began the evacuation of German troops under Colonel Müller and quite probably saved Assisi from destruction.
So, who owes whom, really, in the end?
Museo della Canapa (Sant’Anatolia di Narco)
Phone: 0743. 613149 (if you arrive and no one is there, call this number or ask around…the office is down the street)
Hours: Mon closed, Tues-Fri: 9:00-1:00, Tues/Thurs: 3:00-6:00, Sat: 2:30-6:00, Sun: must reserve.
Museo della Canapa
If you think that just one person can’t make much of a difference in this crazy world, listen to the story of a five foot tall, red haired, tinkly-bracelet-and-flowered-poncho-clad dynamo named Glenda Giampaoli. Yep, just like that bad ass of a Good Witch Glenda, who might disarm you with her ready smile and sweet voice but don’t get between her wand and whatever she’s aiming it at.
A textile archaeologist with a soft spot for her home region, Glenda had a dream: to bring to light the rich history of hemp farming and textile production in the Valnerina. And before you start pigeonholing her in with Woody Harrelson and patchouli-scented aging hippies in Berkeley, let me just tell you that hemp was once mainstream in Italy. Extremely mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that Italy was the second largest industrial hemp producer in the world at the beginning of the 20th century. The staid women’s fashion magazine, Grazia, put out an entire issue in 1940 entitled “The Triumph of Hemp” dedicated to the latest in hemp fabrics and styles. (The lead story begins thus: “Hemp, like a woman, must be treated roughly to render it soft and pliable.” Ahem. Yes, well. We’ve come a long way, baby.)
– Also read about: Hemp Oil For Elderly.
Then, as Glenda so succinctly puts it, Italy lost the war. History is written by the victors, who also determine the course of the future. As the Allies had huge economic stakes in the success of nylon and other synthetic fibers developed during World War II, hemp was demonized. Polyester was in, hemp was out…and with it a micro-culture and economy dependent upon its production. With an admirable amount of patience and tenacity, Glenda has been working for the past few years to re-introduce hemp farming in the Valnerina and other areas of Umbria (recent EU legislation has begun legalizing the crop) and sensitize the population to the benefits of bringing back this lost product.
Part of her campaign—the most important part, perhaps —has been the establishment of the nano-sized Hemp Museum in the fetching village of Sant’Anatolia di Narco. With a bit of negotiation, flavored with diplomacy, grovelling, determination, and (one can only imagine, in this country where just renewing your driver’s license can seem more complicated than an establishing an international commission on CO2 emissions) quite a bit of luck and goodwill, Glenda was able to retrofit a section of the village’s former city hall to hold an eclectic collection of antique textile and weaving tools and looms and examples of hemp cloth donated by local families and dating from the 1800s.
The museum’s information panels are all excellently translated, but if you’re lucky you may get a tour by Glenda herself, who flavours the visit with local lore and cultural nuance (hemp weaving, for example, was key to the economic independence of women—particularly widows and single women—at the turn of the century, as it was one of the few occupations available which could be pursued without leaving the home). The pride she has in her tiny yet huge triumph of a museum is palpable…and contagious. As I watched her punctuate her impassioned explanations with grand gesticulations while she insisted on showing us “just one more thing…this is really special!” I realized that only a tiny yet huge personality like Glenda could have waved her wand at the disheartening Italian bureaucracy and conjured up this most special museum.
Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.